The Endless Wisdom of Irene Yee

Photo: Irene Yee

Adventure photographer Irene “Lady Lockoff” Yee opens up about capturing the empowering magic of climbing, and inspiring the sport’s most underrepresented groups by showcasing their struggles and joys.

When climbing photographer Irene Yee (she/her) goes searching for subjects to photograph, she isn’t looking for muscle, elegance, or even skill. That’s because, for her, climbing isn’t about reaching the top of the route. Sending isn’t the reason new climbers get into the sport, and it’s not the reason people stick around. Instead, she says, the magic of climbing is all about the emotions you experience on the wall. It’s about pushing yourself and overcoming. It’s about joy. It’s about supporting the people you love. If you’re going to capture climbing, Yee says, you have to start there.

One look at Yee’s work—bold, vibrant images that have graced climbing magazines and major brand campaigns alike—and that down-to-earth adventure philosophy is front and center. For her, it’s been that way since the very beginning. When Yee first picked up a camera, her only goal was to document the struggles and triumphs of her friends. Now, five years later, Yee (often known by her Instagram handle @ladylockoff) has made a career out of photographing the people she’s closest to. And no matter how famous she gets, she says she’ll still prefer photographing intermediate climbers to the pros.

For one, she says, friends are usually the most comfortable unleashing their full range of emotion in front of you, and that’s what makes a compelling photograph. For another, Yee’s climber friends are often women and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), groups that have been historically underrepresented in adventure media. She wants to uplift their stories because that’s the kind of imagery she needed to see when she was young, new to climbing, and uncertain if she belonged.

Yee grew up in New York but didn’t start climbing until after college, upon moving to Las Vegas (where she’s now based). She went to a meetup group at a local climbing gym, where the group was so welcoming and inclusive, she went a second time. After that, she was hooked. And though Yee has said that she was inspired to stick with climbing because of a single photo, it’s not because the image featured a subject who was sending hard or pictured on some majestic line. It was a photo of a woman with chalk-covered hands and painted nails. Upon seeing it, Yee realized that you didn’t have to be a specific kind of person to become a climber; there was room for everyone. 

Her journey since then has been full of ups and downs—and a whole lot of learning along the way. She recently sat down with Public Lands to share her wisdom on work, climbing, and finding your voice.  

PUBLIC LANDS: You switched careers during the pandemic, going from theater technician at Cirque du Soleil to full-time photographer in 2020. Was it scary to make the jump?

Of course. It’s always nerve-wracking leaving something stable. The choice was sort of forced on me by getting laid off during the pandemic, but it was also a push and a catalyst I needed. By that point I’d been an amateur or hobbyist for maybe four or five years, and I had the skills and experience. [Getting laid off] was a reminder that I absolutely needed to trust myself that I could do it.

Photo: Irene Yee

What was the climbing photography world like when you started?

It was all elite people doing elite things who happened to be photographers. I did not have that [kind of physical skill level] at my disposal, but was I going to let that stop me? Absolutely not. I knew I could be a great photographer by having a vision of what I wanted to do and finding a way to execute that was within my wheelhouse.

How do you feel now? Do you feel like you’ve made it?

Yes, for sure. But only in the last two years have I felt comfortable saying that I’m a pro photographer. That’s not because of any particular job or moment, though—it’s never the jobs you get that make you feel like you’ve made it. It’s a shift within yourself where you start to feel proud and confident that you know what you’re doing. Especially as a woman of color, I question myself constantly because other people question me constantly. So that shift of finally feeling proud of my work really had to happen within me.

What’s your goal with your photography? What message do you want to send?

I always wanted to photograph women doing badass things—being strong and powerful. My medium for that just happened to be rock climbing. I wanted to put out into the world the kinds of images that inspired me as a new climber, and what I needed to see to know that I belonged in this space.

What’s the role of an artist when it comes to speaking out about things like representation, or trying to affect change in the world?

It’s not the job of an artist to deal with anyone else’s opinions [or necessarily to solve the world’s problems]. Artistry is wonderful because you can move a lot of people or you can move yourself. Putting it on art to be a change in the world is too much. It’s not there for that. I think it’s wonderful to be able to have your art speak to other people. That’s a wonderful feeling, but that’s not what it has to do. It’s there to be enjoyed, either personally, or by a few, or by many.

What kinds of climbers inspire you most?

The ones that I personally know. Those are the people I relate to. When you’re witnessing the joy or the struggle from someone close to you, it’s just so much closer to home. I’m also inspired by women in their 50s who climb and show what life can be like. That’s amazing because I can’t go back to being 20, but I now know that I can have this inspiring life as a 50-year-old. That’s a beautiful thing.

Is it possible to climb and photograph at the same time?

I cannot. In the beginning I could because both things were fun, but I was also a casual climber who was doing single-pitch things, so you sit around a bit. I filled my time with photography. Now I’m really intentional about both. I don’t climb much anymore, but when I do want to focus on climbing, I don’t bring my camera. I always encourage people to choose what they want to do for the day. Then, dedicate your time and space to that.

What’s your relationship like with climbing now?

The biggest thing to know about climbing is that your attitude toward it will change. In the beginning, you’re having so much fun, and then it slowly changes to needing to achieve and talking constantly about what tiny thing you need to do to get one more crimp on that problem. Then, for me, it’s become something that I’ve grown farther away from. Maybe it’s just getting older, but there’s a fear-sense in me that just wasn’t there before. It’s still something I enjoy doing, but it’s not something I ever wanted to be an athlete or elite or a pro at. I love to be around it. I love to photograph it. But my own relationship with it has changed. That’s not wrong—it’s just a part of it. Sometimes your attention moves to something else. And it does that because you’re a human being who’s curious and needs to expand in what they do.

Why is it still so important for you to share climbing through your photography?

The reason I got into climbing is because it taught me a lot about myself. It gave me confidence. It helped me learn what I was personally capable of. It also taught me to know when to say, ‘OK, I am so ready to come down, this is not happening for me today.’ It’s a wonderful thing to be like, ‘I’m done,’ and be done, and have it be no big deal. That’s confidence to me—where you can make choices for yourself and it’s not about completion or fulfilling some other ideal. It’s about where you are at in that moment and giving yourself all the time and space you need.

So now, with my photography, I don’t want to inspire people to get into climbing to be climbers. I want you to try something that scares you so you know you have the confidence to say ‘OK, I can do that. Now what else can I do?’ If someone sees my work and feels empowered to start or continue climbing, that’s great. If someone sees it and feels empowered to leave rock climbing and put their attention to something else that makes them happy, that’s just as good.

What do you want to see change in the climbing community?

I think we can all be better about opening ourselves up to a more diverse experience. We can all remember that we come from different places and that what it took for us to get there will be vastly different from what it took for someone else to get there. We can do our part to listen, give back to one another, and give back to the places we recreate.

Who are your heroes in photography?

Again, it’s the people that I know. Nikki Smith is so undervalued for the amazing work she does. Krystle Wright constantly inspires me by the beauty and scale of her work. I also look up to a lot of artists who aren’t photographers but who are doing amazing things with their artwork. That could be cartoons or paintings or landscapes. It’s hard to think about having one hero because, as an artist, you don’t need to try to be someone else. You just need to find a way to feel supported in the thing you like to do.

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